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Earley in race against time to prove fitness

DERMOT EARLEY looks like losing his race to be fit for next Sunday's All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Down in Croke Park (3.30).

Kildare's All Star midfielder has been bedevilled by a cruciate injury all summer, most recently during their quarter-final win over Meath when his knee buckled in the very opening minutes.

The Lilywhite camp was happy at the time that no further structural damage had occurred. However, it's understood he had a minor keyhole procedure just over two weeks ago and, while he has resumed some light running, he didn't take part in yesterday's internal practice match.

"Dermot has done a little bit but it may just come too soon," a spokesperson said. "He still has a chance but it will be a race against time."

In the event that Kildare's veteran talisman doesn't make it, there will be several contenders for the midfield vacancy. Hugh Lynch would appear in pole position given his highly effective role when deputising for Earley against Meath, although David Whyte, Gary White and Ronan Sweeney could also enter the equation.

Kildare are reporting no other injury scares ahead of the Down clash. Intriguingly, yesterday's practice match coincided with the first semi-final between Cork and Dublin -- a clear indication that manager Kieran McGeeney isn't letting Lilywhite minds wander beyond next Sunday.

KIERAN DONAGHY believes the GAA should have retained the 'mark' for this year's championship. Speaking on RTé Radio, he said the "worst thing" about yesterday's Cork/Dublin game was the "lack of long kick-outs and the lack of high fielding. That's why the mark should have been kept. You saw the Dublin-Tyrone game, Dublin let Tyrone get every short kick-out. It's something the game is lacking today -- a few high catches."

THE merits of allowing Ulster champions direct access to the All-Ireland U21 hurling semi-finals will be called into question after Antrim were annihilated, 2-32 to 1-7, by an exceptional Tipperary.